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Freedom and Democracy: Ready or Not

Satellite view of North Korea at night, with South Korea below and China at top left. (NASA)

Last week, a question came up at the Oslo Freedom Forum: What about the contention that some peoples, some nations, are simply not ready for freedom or democracy? This is a longstanding question, and Thor Halvorssen, the founder of the Freedom Forum, gave it a good response. It went something like this:

People like to say, “Oh, those guys — they’re used to a strong hand. Take the Russians. They need a strong hand, they love that stuff: the czars, Stalin, etc.” And this is the exact argument that dictators themselves use: “My people need me. We’re not like you in America or France or other such places. My people aren’t suited to your notions of democracy. They need my strong hand.”

Putin looks to Ukraine with extreme anxiety. For one thing, a large Russian minority lives there. And if Russians in Ukraine can live in a democratic state — what about Russians in (gulp) Russia?

Then there’s China. “Oh, they’re used to oppressive rule,” people say. “Think of the emperors, think of Mao. The Chinese have their own way of doing things, and Western concepts should not interfere.” There’s a big problem, however: Taiwan. A place where millions of Chinese live in a thriving democracy.

The Korean Peninsula? That’s nearly a perfect laboratory experiment. The people on this peninsula have the same DNA, speak the same language, eat the same food (to the extent that North Koreans can eat). But political systems — opportunities — make all the difference.

So, we may tell ourselves, “Some places are simply not suited to democracy, there’s not much we can do” — but this may be a convenient fiction.

Garry Kasparov chimed in on this question as well. He is the former chess champion who is now a freedom champion. “Chess talent exists everywhere,” he said. Sure, there were a lot of good players in the Soviet Union. But that’s because the state was interested in chess, and created opportunities.

Kasparov has traveled the world, and found chess talent where you might least expect it. What people need is opportunity — a chance.

Fatemah Qaderyan told me something similar. She is the 16-year-old Afghan who captains her robotics team. I wrote about her here. She wants to help establish a STEM school for girls in Afghanistan. (“STEM,” as you know, stands for science, technology, engineering, and math.) “There are many girls who have intelligence and talents that no one knows about. These things need to be brought out. People need opportunity.”

I myself know a little about the music scene. Kids from East Asia are on fire for Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven — more than kids from Germany and Austria are, trust me.

As in chess, said Kasparov, so in politics. He made a particular point about South Korea: The president — a woman — has been impeached. The heir to the country’s biggest corporation (Samsung) was convicted of bribery. And North Korea? A gulag state, plain and simple.

There was another question in Oslo, posed by an American: Do you regard the United States as part of the Free World? The questioner said that the U.S. incarcerates far too many people. That, after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama dropped more bombs than Bush. That the new head of the CIA is a certified torturer. Etc.

Thor Halvorssen answered this question with great patience — more than I could have summoned, I’m sure. He explained the fundamental differences between liberal democracies and anti-democratic states. These have to do with elections, the press, the judiciary, civil society, and so on.

I admired his ability to answer the question — to give a kind of 101. Garry Kasparov? He was excellent too, though more vehement. He said, in essence, “Grow the hell up.” He spoke as a person born and raised in the Soviet Union. He knows the difference between free and unfree in his very bones.

For generations, people from unfree countries have labored to make those in free countries more cognizant of what they have, and others don’t.

Last month, the Hungarian premier, Viktor Orbán, declared, “The era of liberal democracy is over.” If Europe has given up on it — and I hope they haven’t — I hope and trust that others will pick up the baton.

Maybe like they picked up Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven?

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